A pattern emerged at the beginning of the pandemic: COVID-19 led to an overly aggressive immune response in some people, causing deadly inflammation.

“That’s when we realized BRI could play a key role — we have a whole tool chest for studying the immune system and we could use it to fight COVID-19,” says BRI President Jane Buckner, MD.

As the world shut down, BRI ramped up. Within a month we were generating data. Since then, we’ve helped test the Pfizer vaccine. We’ve studied vaccine effectiveness in people with autoimmune disease and Down syndrome. We’ve run trials for COVID-19 medicines and conducted studies to understand exactly how the virus infects people.

“Our team worked 24/7 to get COVID-19 research up and running. More than 200 donors gave to our COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund to support this research,” Dr. Buckner says. “BRI is still reaping the benefits of that hard work and support as we continue to learn how this virus impacts the immune system.”

Launching a Research Program as the World Shut Down 

The early days of COVID-19 felt hauntingly familiar to Uma Malhotra, MD. It triggered thoughts of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, when she was a postdoc at BRI. People were dying. There were no proven treatments. It inspired her to dedicate her career to seeking new treatments and providing care for people with infectious diseases. Uma-Malhotra-MD

When COVID-19 hit, she was again in the face of an unknown and deadly virus. She felt the weight of patients needing help and not having answers. Research was the only way to find effective treatments. So she started building a collaboration between BRI and Virginia Mason to learn about the virus.

First, the team needed blood samples from people with COVID-19 — and getting them wouldn’t be easy. Collecting samples typically means seeing people face-to-face and drawing blood. But these researchers came up with an innovative way to get samples without exposing anyone else to the virus: using blood left over from samples collected for medical tests. BRI could recover those leftover samples and use them for research.

Next, the team needed a tool to extract meaningful information from those samples.

“Turns out a tool we created for the Sound Life Project in 2019 worked perfectly,” says Cate Speake, PhD, of BRI’s Center for Interventional Immunology. “We built it to be able to pull information from samples even if they were a few days old.”

Just like that, BRI’s COVID-19 research program was up and running. Within months, we had data connecting certain immune system characteristics to more serious cases of COVID-19. Dr. Malhotra’s team published findings about how early symptoms like shortness of breath could help predict serious illness — one of several studies examining outcomes and treatments for the virus.

Joining the Fight Against COVID-19

Peter-Morawski-PhD-working-under-a-hood-wearing-PPEHaving a library of samples enabled more BRI scientists to get involved in COVID-19 research — including Peter Morawski, PhD, whose first contribution was helping process those samples. He remembers going to the lab when roads were empty and businesses were closed. 

“It looked like Seattle, but it didn’t feel right at all. BRI had schedules for everything — eating space, equipment, even parking — to ensure social distancing,” he says. “It was this crazy, chaotic time. But we made it work because we wanted to help. Using our skills and tools to answer pressing questions was, to me, our moral imperative as scientists.” 

Keen to do more COVID-19 research, Dr. Morawski worked with BRI’s Daniel Campbell, PhD, and Marion Pepper, PhD, from the University of Washington. They examined the immune systems of people with mild COVID-19 infections. They still follow this group, most recently studying how having COVID-19 and then getting vaccinated impacts your immunity — and finding that vaccination after infection provides exceptionally strong protection.

The Lacy-Hulbert Lab was also quick to get involved in COVID-19 research.

“Our work studying virus mechanisms went from being theoretical to being urgent,” says Adam Lacy-Hulbert, PhD. “All of a sudden, this research could mean identifying a drug or finding a new therapeutic target that could help stop the emerging pandemic.”

One of their most exciting findings was that COVID-19 uses a specific method to get inside your cells and make you sick. Viruses like Ebola and MERS use that same method. If certain genes are turned on, those viruses can’t infect your cells. Now the lab is examining if turning on those genes can help prevent COVID-19 and other viruses.

Discoveries Fuel Patient Care

Beyond the lab, BRI’s Center for Interventional Immunology has made key contributions to vaccine research. BRI helped test the Pfizer vaccine — and many employees stepped up as participants in the trial, contributing to data that helped prove the vaccine is safe and effective. This team has since conducted vaccine research among people with type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

“We were really eager to bring our focus back to people with immune system diseases,” Dr. Speake says. “We’re working to understand if having these diseases or medications to treat them impact how well vaccines work.”

This research aims to help these communities understand their risk as we continue to live in a world with COVID-19.

“I’m so proud of our team,” Dr. Buckner says. “I’m proud of how quickly we got this research up and running. Of how we focused in and found answers to pressing questions early in the pandemic. I’m proud of how we’ve shared what we’ve learned with the public to help keep our communities safe. The pandemic has shown just how strong, resilient and dedicated BRI’s team is.”


This was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of the Powering Possibilities newsletter.

Category: 
Fighting Diseases

March 31, 2022

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